Money: Open season for pickpockets and credit-card thieves

Don't get turned over at the turnstiles or accosted on the costas. By Tom Tickell
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The Independent Online
Whoever emerges as the champion for Euro 96, credit card thieves will almost certainly be the other great winners over the next few weeks. For thieves it means the traditional summer holiday peak has started early.

The first pickings are already coming in as hordes of supporters fight their way in and out of the stadiums and then battle their way home on public transport. That is where the professional gangs appear.

In the evening, supporters will be celebrating a magnificent victory or drowning their sorrows, and will be half-cut lambs for the slaughter.

Cards also traditionally get lost or stolen on holiday. Last year Spain topped the league of card theft, with 87 per cent of missing cards turning out to have been stolen, followed by the Czech Republic, Portugal and Italy, according to specialist insurers Card Protection Plan. Barcelona was the riskiest city, followed by Florence, Madrid, Prague and Moscow.

When people notice cards have gone missing they often believe they have left them in their hotel and that they will turn up somewhere. That drives the giant issuers like the banks and building societies to despair. Barclaycard claims that one customer in four does not get round to reporting that his or her card has been stolen until at least 24 hours after noticing it has gone. Inevitably thieves run up most of their fraudulent spending within the first 48 hours.

Millions of people nowadays have more than one credit card. The spate of low-cost American cards from the likes of MBNA and People's Bank, charging perhaps two-thirds of the monthly interest rates that Access and Barclaycard demand on unpaid balances, means the numbers are rising rapidly.

Apart from a multiplicity of credit cards there are debit cards and cheque guarantee cards (where they are not combined), store cards, charge cards and company cards as well, almost always stored together in the same wallet or handbag.

If they are stolen, there are, in each case, freephone numbers to ring to report the loss of each one, provided you can remember them or have them safe at home.

Cardholders who do not have the time or the temperament to keep track of their own details can delegate the responsibility, for a fee. Two groups - Card Protection Plan and Sentinel - will store all details and do all cancellations for you.

They will also store numbers for motor insurance, house and contents cover and the copies of the contracts themselves if need be. Sentinel's fee works out at pounds 8 for a year to cover all the credit cards in a household, with pounds 21 for a three-year contract and pounds 38 for five.

CPP will levy an annual fee of pounds 8 for someone on their own and pounds 13 for a couple. People can choose between them but usually they buy them through a bank or credit card group, which will only offer one or the other.

A single call will trigger the swift cancellation of all cards at risk, and both CPP and Sentinel ensure their own freephone numbers appear on key rings, plastic cards to be kept at home and luggage tags.

Whatever may have happened to crime elsewhere, however, credit-card fraud is only half what it was five years ago. Banks now impose lower "floor limits" so that cashiers have to check with the card companies' central computers that a particular card is valid for transactions worth, say, pounds 50 and not pounds 100. The process takes a couple of seconds

That has certainly cut crime in stores and the supermarkets. Meanwhile, service stations can lock into a computer base - and get an answer in a couple of seconds on whether cards have been stolen.

But card issuers still lost over pounds 83.3m through card fraud last year - and 1.6 million credit cards went missing. In theory you have to pay the first pounds 25 or pounds 50 of any loss depending on the issuer, but charges are not imposed unless you are extremely slow in reporting losses or do something as crass as writing your PIN number on the card itself.

But even if penalties do not apply, you still have to survive without cards, and that is no fun if you are travelling around on business or pleasure.

More could be done to cut opportunities for thieves to make use of stolen cards, but British citizens are extremely reluctant to submit to having their pictures taken. The ultimate form of card security may however just be a twinkle, not in a scientist's but a customer's eye.

The iris in your eye may only be one of five colours, but the dots and patterns within it are unique. Ultimately the idea is that people using cards would look into a machine connected directly to a database and type in their PIN numbers. The machine would then decide whether the card and iris pattern went together.

All that is some way ahead - and in the meanwhile life and theft continue.

CPP's freephone number is 0800 330000. Sentinel can be contacted on 0800 414717

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